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The Science of HappinessMJ O'Leary
If you haven't already, be sure to read the first installment in this series on College Students and Mental Health in 2020–21.
You’ve heard the term, but what are “coping skills?” Coping skills are thoughts and behaviors that can help college students (and anyone for that matter) get more comfortable with, minimize and deal with stressors. Coping skills can provide temporary reprieve or long-term solace.
As you’ll see below, many coping skills are kind of no-brainers (e.g., talk to a friend!) while others may not be as obvious (e.g., healthier eating). I’ve split up some of the most common coping skills I teach students into five categories.
The best way parents can encourage their college-aged kids to use these skills is by having subtle conversations about what’s not working in their life. Starting out by giving unsolicited advice doesn’t work so well (as I’m sure you already know).
A diversion is a distraction, a coping skill that helps college students avoid destructive or unhealthy thoughts. This provides a temporary interruption until they can think clearly again.
Not all diversions are fun but they can still provide good distraction. Some typical examples include:
“Think different” was an advertising slogan used from 1997 to 2002 by Apple. They used grainy, black and white photos of famous people who changed the world by thinking (and acting) differently. The slogan was a clever response to IBM's "Think" and became iconic in the marketing world.
So what does this have to do with coping skills? One of the fundamental things I work on with college students is to get them to essentially think differently. Students often have their emotions dictate their behavior and they benefit from thinking differently about how to improve their lives.
Thinking differently — or developing what clinicians call “cognitive skills” — helps students identify unhealthy thinking landmines and possibly reverse the negative downward spiral.
Here are a few cognitive skills that work well:
This set of coping skills is pretty instinctive for most. It’s the use of our social network. Sharing their struggles and talking through the pain helps students more accurately identify problems and process uncomfortable feelings. It’s also an opportunity to accept support and advice.
Here are examples of ways college students can cultivate social skills:
Physical coping skills are focused on changing behaviors in order to improve a situation, decrease negative feelings, and promote mental space to get through tough things. These are bodily coping strategies that we can practice to minimize undue stress.
Some behaviors I encourage my clients to adopt are:
Not all coping skills are healthy. While they may bring a temporary sense of relief and comfort, these coping strategies can negatively hurt you in the long run.
Here are several unhealthy coping behaviors I see many college students use:
That’s it for Part 2. Coping skills are not meant to fix anything. Coping skills buy us time to develop practices that become healthy routines. I certainly don’t teach them with the expectation that my clients will miraculously be depression and anxiety-free. It’s a way to get through to the other side of emotional struggle until clinical intervention can fully take hold.
Parents often feel helpless and sometimes even a bit hopeless when their kids are struggling in college. Next time, in Part 3, we’ll examine what parents can do to most effectively help during such a chaotic and unpredictable time.